Marriage As A Social Contract In Jane Austen’s ‘Pride And Prejudice’
“.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. With these famous words, Jane Austen launched into what has come to be regarded by many as the greatest romance novel of all time. Written in late 1790’s England, in a time of radical social upheaval and political change, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ presents a mixed bag of social ideas relating to marriage, the meaning of femininity, love and the fluidity of class structure. The time of writing put ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in the middle of a fictional war of ideas between female writers of the time, arriving as it does at a sort of middle ground between the feminist views of Mary Wollstonecraft and the more rural traditionalist views of Hannah More (Jones, V., ‘Introduction to “Pride and Prejudice”’, (1996) London: Penguin). This lead to much confusion among critics as to exactly what Austen’s views regarding marriage and feminism were, and in many cases continues to do so today. In this essay I will attempt to clear up some of this ambiguity, while closely examining the idea of marriage itself, the nature of the ‘social contract’, and the social and historical background to the idea of marriage as a social contract In ‘The Sadeian Woman’, Angela Carter states that “The marriage bed is a particularly delusive refuge from the world, because all wives of necessity fuck by contract” (Carter, Angela, ‘The Sadeian Woman’, pg. 9, (1978) ). Unfortunately for Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, it cannot be denied that she is a “wife of necessity”. Effectively disinherited through the fine print of their father’s will, the Bennet girls and their neurotic mother are to become penniless on the death of Mr. Bennet, unless they can find themselves a rich husband. Elizabeth’s initial disapproval of Mr. Darcy and his pride seems to undergo a radical upheaval on her visit to Pemberley, Darcy’s ancestral estate, as she herself admits – when discussing with her sister the progress of her feeling’s for Mr. Darcy, she states “I believe it must date from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (p301). Certain critics have therefore claimed that Elizabeth Bennet is mercenary in her reasons for marriage to Mr. Darcy. This apparently gold-digging behaviour would suggest an attempt by Elizabeth not only to retain, but also to improve, her class status, and therefore to fall in line with rural traditionalism as laid out in Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’. As Elizabeth Bennet is Austen’s heroine, and therefore a character of whom she writes very favourably, it could be supposed that Austen’s attitude towards marriage, and the position of women in society, in writing this book was one of traditional rural conservatism. However, before we can accept this supposition, we must recall that Elizabeth has already turned down two well-off potential husbands – one of them being Mr. Darcy himself! – in an attempt to hold out for true love and personal happiness. Her disgust at the proposal of the unbelievably boring and rude Mr. Collins was surpassed only by her shock at discovering that her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, had consented to marry him instead. Unabashedly mercenary, Ms. Lucas declares that marriage is a woman’s “pleasantest preservative from want” but that it is “uncertain of giving happiness” (p.103) (Jones, V., etc). Elizabeth, on the other hand, claims to believe in marriage for love, and holds her own individual happiness as a personal goal. This portrayal of the heroine as a creature of emotion and feeling, as opposed to a rational, logical and slightly more masculine figure, would assume Austen to be in favour of the theories of such feminist thinkers of the time as Mary Wollstonecraft – a staunch opposer of the writings of Edmund Burke. What, then, is Austen’s stance towards marriage as seen in ‘Pride and Prejudice’? Is she a romantic...
References: Austen, Jane, ‘Pride And Prejudice’, (1813)
Burke, Edmund, ‘Reflections on The Revolution in France’, (1790)
Carter, Angela, ‘The Sadeian Woman’, (1978)
Jones, V., ‘Introduction to “Pride And Prejudice”’, (1996), London: Penguin Classics
Wollstonecraft, Mary, ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Woman’, (1792)
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